Tobacco use in youth under the age of 18 is motivated by curiosity, peer pressure, family example, and influence by media, such as films, ads, and TV.
It starts with experimentation; it is usually months or even years before a new user actually wants a regular supply. Of course, in Washington it is illegal for youth under 18 to buy or possess it; and illegal for anyone to give tobacco to youth. So how do teens get it?
In San Juan County, over 80 percent of youth do not use tobacco. For those who say that they do, the most frequent ways that they access tobacco is by giving money to someone older than 18 to buy it for them, they “borrow” cigarettes from others, or they try to buy it from stores themselves.
We know that if we can keep a teen from starting until they are 18, most of them won’t start. In addition, the more difficult it is for youth to access tobacco, fewer will use it. That is why our local Tobacco Prevention and Control Program (TPCP) works to decrease youth access to tobacco through support of efforts in school tobacco prevention programs, law enforcement, and by working to increase store compliance with the law.
To decrease tobacco sales to youth, TPCP monitors local sales, educates retailers and the community about tobacco sale and possession laws, and conducts random on-site store checks, during which underage youth attempt to buy tobacco. Stores who sell during these checks are fined by the state Liquor Control Board, and may have their license suspended. In addition, the clerk who sold tobacco to youth is also fined.
Federal law requires states to keep youth tobacco sales rates at or below 20 percent of stores that sell tobacco to youth. Sales have been as high as 60 percent in San Juan County. This has resulted in San Juan being rated as the second worst county in Washington for sales to minors, since 1998. Other counties, including King and Pierce, have been consistently lower than 20 percent; although, the number of stores there is much higher.
Because of these high rates of sales to youth, the state has required San Juan County to conduct two compliance checks each year, instead of the usual one required of other counties. Our rate has decreased steadily: last December, only 6 percent of stores (one in the 15 stores that were checked) sold to youth in the compliance check.
Key reasons for this success include informational visits to stores by our local program, legal follow up by the state Liquor Control Board (LCB), and the work of owners, managers and staff of local stores. According to Theron Soderlund, owner of Orcas Island’s Country Corner and member of Orcas Island Prevention Partnership, “It has to start at the top. If the owner is not interested, compliance is not important. I talk with my staff at orientation, and at every staff meeting about compliance. They know that it is a high priority.”
According to Soderlund, most adults who buy for youth are 19 to 25 years old. Newly “legal” to buy, they can feel like a hero of sorts to the underage youth, not thinking about the consequences of tobacco use for their friends.
The truth is, all adults are critical in blocking youth access to tobacco. If you are approached by children under 18 to buy their tobacco, refuse to do so. Do not give tobacco to youth under 18. If you work at stores that sell tobacco, check identification carefully, and refuse to sell to underage youth. If you see stores selling tobacco to youth, say something! “I notice that you haven’t checked ID yet” is usually enough.